Monday, 27 April 2020

For such a time as this

Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last 2 months, or woken up like Rip Van Winkle after a 20 year sleep, you will be (probably painfully) aware of the word COVID-19.

Our world has changed drastically to put it lightly.  Who would have imagined no flights at all between the US and Europe, of oil being so cheap that it for a short time companies were paying others to store it for them (negative price!), of 1.3 billion people in 'lock-down' with all that it is meaning to our beloved country of India.  Strange days to be sure.

Sheba and I have just completed 6 blessed months at the Asha Kiran Society in Lamtaput, Odisha.  It is a joy to be part of this amazing team of doctors and nurses and community educators and farmer-friendly motivators and, and, and...  We are based at a hospital with a big heart - with a group of amazing people who are living out their call - warts and all of course - with long-lasting fruit stemming from Asha Kiran 30 odd years of devoted work.

And the scenery... drop-dead gorgeous.  A feast to the eye, and the ear too as the stillness is broken not with the ear-splitting sounds of the latest marriage DJ procession which was our Lalitpur staple,  but with a medley of bird-song, and the rustle of the wind in bamboo outside our house.

Far, far away from everything we are, nestled on the South-western corner of Odisha, up in the tribal highlands.  Surely, COVID-19 will not perturb us here?

Well, to put it lightly, we are all connected.  Even in the remote villages where we have work with people who belong to the Bonda (a particularly vulnerable tribal group) we find that they have members who have gone to Kerala and Mumbai for work.  The remotest corner of the world is linked through labour and remittances with the swirling maelstorm of modernity.

As the Odisha state government took the lead in announcing various levels of COVID-19 control measures, we realised that it was no longer 'business as usual.'  All our village multilingual education centres were shut when the local schools were closed - but we are grateful that we had just managed to finish the first term evaluations.  Reading the writing on the wall, our team sent out staff and volunteers to the 157 village hamlets that Asha Kiran has some work in with basic COVID-19 prevention messages.

The training for this was held out of door with physical distancing in place - and allowed us to cover all these villages before the Central Government announced the nation-wide lockdown from midnight 23rd of March!

At the same time, our Asha Kiran Hospital worked hard to develop a separate COVID-19 referral centre in the Asha Kiran Training Centre buildings.  Amazingly, it was up and running within a week of the first planning session.  Kudos to the team who developed systems, fenced off the area, set up a 25 bedded inpatient care centre and a cough OPD where patients with cough symptoms are first triaged to from the main hospital gate.

The agony of deciding who will be on duty was deferred as the doctors and nurses took turns to see potentially COVID-19 patients.  But these 3 weeks have seen hardly any cases - maybe 4-5 cough cases coming to the cough OPD and for the past 2 weeks no one was admitted over night.

Personal protective equipment (PPEs)?  Not available in local shops (we have 3).  Not available by Amazon (no deliveries here during lock-down).  Not available even in the big cities... and so our team started making our own.  And masks too.  Lots of them.

And in the mean-time our community people have put in their second round of visits - this time to a smaller group of villages to deliver medications for people with long-term illnesses who were unable to come to Asha Kiran Hospital due to the Lock-down nixing all public transportation.   And also to find out what the food stocks people had at home (4.5 months on average we found - which is why this is post-harvest time is normally the festival and marriage season).

And yet, as time went on, we still did not have a single patient diagnosed with COVID-19 in our district.   Yes, the numbers of people tested has been small, but surely with such a big disease taking place all over the world...

I found myself remembering Nevil Shute's melancholy book On the Beach which I had read in my teens.  The book has people living in Australia in a post-nuclear-war-world in which everyone in the Northern Hemisphere has died.  The characters are waiting for the radiation sickness to spread down to them and as the book proceeds you hear that more and more cities and town are 'out.'  Needless to say the book does not have a happy ending.

And so I took to checking up on the covid19India site.  Almost every night.  Sometimes multiple times a day.  Watching the numbers start to swell.  Seeing Odisha get its first cases.  But each time new cases were added to Odisha (there are 103 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state to date), I would check to see if they were from our district of Koraput.  Each time they were from somewhere else.

But today that changed. 

This afternoon the following whatsapp text arrived in my phone. 

And in Sheba's phone too.

We have our first local case.  A young nurse who has come back to Koraput from Kolkota. 

Needless to say, health workers are at the forefront of caring - and also getting the disease.

This is of course precisely why we are here.  To work with our communities to address their challenges.  Be they the old-hat ones of poverty, malnutrition, TB etc., or the slightly newer ones of helping people with terminal illnesses and mental challenges, or the brand-new COVID-19 pandora's box of fear and loathing (combined with a very infectious disease which kills the most vulnerable).

The little red "+1" below marks Koraput's entry in the COVID-19 saga.

How many more people in our communities will get COVID-19?  Will we be swamped with cases at the Asha Kiran Hospital?  Will our on-going community outreaches see a slow trickle of suspect cases build up?  What will happen to the particularly vulnerable tribal groups we serve?

We really, really don't know.  We have tried to prepare for the worst... and are hoping and (literally) praying for the best.  I would be the happiest person in the world if this first case in Koraput is the last one too.

But given that Prince Charles and Boris Johnson and various other high-profile folks were unable to stop themselves from getting the disease, I think that most probably a goodly number of other people will get it in our district as well.

And so we have the opportunity to care for them and share love and hope.  To do to them as we would like others to do to us... and being health-care workers this possibility is real.

We don't know the future, but we know who holds the future.  The COVID-19 situation all around the world has brought much suffering and confusion, but we also realise that it offers opportunities to live our lives the way they should be. 

Can we be firmly in the present with our eyes fixed on an eternal future?  Taking each day with gratitude and love and seeing all our tasks big and small (or small and smaller) as having value.  Loving God and loving our neighbours (esp. our dear family members who we are seeing more of that we have in years!).  Taking a deep breath and allowing Jesus to hold our hands when we are afraid. 

Over the next few weeks our community teams aim to cover the 157 villages we have some work in with basic case detections of recent cough cases - and provide them with a mask and basic medications, prevention education and a follow up to see that they are not worsening.   We hope to eventually provide masks for every vulnerable person (elderly, or living with disabilities, or having long-term sicknesses like stroke, sickle-cell disease, cancer, heart problems) in all our villages.  And to monitor what the food security is.  And to provide compassionate care at Asha Kiran Hospital, and, and, and...

Do say a prayer for us as we seek to live out a life of love.  For Sheba and myself and all our amazing colleagues in the Asha Kiran Society and others in the villages.  For such a time as this.

Friday, 3 April 2020


A year can be an era...

Looking back over this last sun-spin I have to say that it has been a dizzying ride since my last April 2nd - but I am so very glad to be in resting in His goodness.

Birthdays are decent road markers.  As mile-stones, they can mark time into fairly discrete chunks (though things get hazy as the years pile up). 

So here, gentle reader, are 7 key markers of this year that has just spun by:

1.  A year of renewal

Turning 50 was special.  It fit into the Biblical year of Jubilee - a super Sabbath year when things are set aright.  God told His people that in the 50th year slaves were to be set free, land was to be returned to the original owners.  In short, a big and good reset button was pushed.

And for Sheba and myself our 50th was really something of the sort.

We started it out with a time of prayer and seeking God's guidance (see next section) and came across the classic "Calvary Road" which we used as part of our guided prayer for renewal.  

For years we had wanted a kind of sabbatical year.  This year we got it.  

A year of travel and blessing.  A year where we dug deeper.  A year with a number of black notebooks filled with thoughts and prayers.  More guided reading took us through the amazing "We Would See Jesus" (also by Roy and Revel Hession).  

And we received a Sabbatical within our Sabbatical - a special 10 days in a beautiful home out on a farm in a late Indiana summer.  Sheba and me alone in beauty.  What wondrous love is this?

I very much needed personal renewal and inner refreshing.  

At the beginning of this year I was struggling with deep anger which bordered on hatred towards a set of individuals.  I knew I needed to change, but got a canary-in-the-cage warning was when my anger boiled over on trip up to Mussoorie in mid Feb 19.  By God's grace, and thanks to the prayers of Sheba, I was ministered to in this area by a senior couple who visited us a week later.  The upshot is that I have been substantially healed inside.   

Being a kind of anger addict, I cannot say that I will ever be completely sober of this vice before I finally meet my Lord, but I can testify that by His grace I end the year a far different person than I was then.   Praise be to Jesus for His gentleness and patience with me.  Your prayers in this area are continued to be coveted by me.

2.  A year of pilgrimage

We started this year in Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh.  A year later we are well entrenched in Lamtaput, Odisha.  And in the mean-time we have wandered far.

As we waited on the Lord in March 2019, God spoke to us.  The short parable of the man who found a treasure in a field (Mat. 13.44), who then in his joy goes and sells all he has and buys that field came to us very clearly.  

We knew that we needed to uproot ourselves and step out.  And so we did.  We gave in our papers and packed up.  And on May 31st we left Lalitpur (after storing our oodles of boxes with a friend) with literally no idea where we would end up serving next.  

But we did have a path to follow.  Friends had called us to serve with them, and so we used this opportunity to look and see what God is doing across our land. 

What amazing folks we had the privilege of observing up close.  And what destiny shaping work is happening quietly across our dear land of India.   This blog has told some of our adventures in this process (though some things will have to wait for you to come personally and visit us to drink chai and talk into the night).

Suffice it to say, our key verse came true.  After 3 years of being on the market, and at least 4 abortive approaches by different people, our apartment in Thane sold - to some of the most wonderful people we know.  And that too just 2 weeks after we made the decision to 'sell all we have and buy the field.'   

Hot on the heels of this was the miraculous opening up for finance streams for Asha to be able to attend Taylor University in the fall - something that I never dreamed would be possible since Sheba and I were officially unemployed for the six months when Asha's visa process was taking place.  Truly our Lord has been very, very kind to us.

And yes, we did find our treasure.

Each and every place where we were called was a treasure in itself.  The dedication and amazing investment that our friends are doing are just jaw-dropping.  Only eternity will tell what all will bubble up from these lives lived to the fullest.

But our particular treasure field was in the place where I for one never imagined we would be - the state of Odisha!

We actually came to Asha Kiran Hospital for a holiday during our pilgrim journey.  We wanted to spend time with Enoch during his small summer break and thought it would be lovely to meet up with Victor, Sarah and their daughter Joanna.  Asha had gone ahead of Sheba and I and so we came through the gates of Asha Kiran little knowing that this would be where we ended up.

After spending a beautiful 10 days here, we were asked to prayerfully consider joining the Asha Kiran Society team.   Initially did not seem likely at all, but joy gradually seeped into our thinking and prayers.   And so a month later our prayers shifted from asking God to show us whether we should join - to asking Him to say why we shouldn't. 

Our pilgrim journey's most recent halt began when we shifted our myriad boxes over to Asha Kiran in mid September.  The past 6 months have been a plunging into a totally new world of the Asha Kiran family - one that I hardly knew existed at this time last year - but with which we are now swirled around and indelibly marked by. 

3.  A year of travel

As I write, the whole world seems to be in multiple lock-down situations, and the very idea of travel seems faint and distant.

But did we ever travel this year!  My birthday last year had Asha and Enoch off in Thailand.  The run up to our leaving Lalitpur had me visit Mumbai a number of times and scoot over to the Nepal border.  Then Sheba and I took our extended India tour covering UP, Bihar, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, MP, Maharashtra and Delhi...  

And then we winged off to the US!

A year ago I would have hardly imagined it possible, but there we were flying across Scandinavia on our direct flight from New Delhi to Chicago!

Our US sojourn was an amazing 2.5 months of blessing as Asha, Sheba and myself were finally able to visit Daisy and family in Arizona, as well as dear friends in Colorado, a quick recce of Atlanta with the Hicks family and then an extended time in Indiana with relatives and friends as Asha started up at Taylor University.

Suffice it to say, the US is a big country.  And we were loved to bits by such an amazing set of very different people who we are blessed to call our friends and family.

We will never be able to give back to all who shared their hearts and lives with us in so many different ways.   Some were folks who barely knew us at all - and yet were just so generous and kind.  

The only way is to 'give forward' - to continue to bless others with what we have, and to be generous in 'entertaining strangers' - living out hospitality as a way of life.

There is no doubt that the US is a beautiful country.

One of my joys was to get up early in the mornings and go for extended walks.  I even managed to get the odd day hike in too like going up in the Rockies with my old friend Greg Jackson!

The stated purpose of our trip was to see Asha ease into her first year of college at Taylor University - where I had spent Rockies some happy years in the late 1980s.

It was lovely to find much of the old - and lots that was new too.  And to see the marvellous young women who are Asha's friends from all over the world.  We are so grateful that Asha gets to plunge into a first-rate education where faith and learning are integrated.  I would so gladly start taking university classes again!

4.  A year of new beginnings and opportunities

We are now living in the highlands of Odisha.  We straddle the North / South border of India as we are at the very base of Odisha (whose state language Odiya is a Sanskritik language), just above Andhra Pradesh (where the Dravidian languages begin). 

Our Asha Kiran catchment area is part of the storied tribal areas where anthropolgists like Verrier Elwin and Christoph Von Fuerer-Haimdorff did pioneering field ethnographies of different tribal groups.

I am in a learning phase - and am trying to learn Odiya (the state language) before I can crack the others.  Sheba was born and brought up in northern Odisha and so is able to focus her attention on learning the Bonda language.  It is good humility medicine for me to fumble around, trying to speak Odiya.  

We are plunging into our work too.  I help coordinate the Community Engagement parts of Asha Kiran Society.  Our teams serve at least 150 village hamlets - many of them quite remote.  Our teams are involved with helping farmers do permaculture with multiple cropping, working with tribal children and helping them learn in their mother-tongue and gradually bridging them into Odiya medium schools as well as our health outreaches which include working with Particularly Vulnerable Tribal groups, youth mental health and home--based palliative care.

Sheba is splits her time between the Asha Kiran Hospital and the community health work. We are happy that she is able to use her varied trainings - and her language skills too.  She does C-sections and ultrasounds (putting into practice the training she got this year) as well as using her diabetes management fellowship and all the basic work that a Family Medicine physician does.  

We are new-comers into a closely knit group here at Asha Kiran, and are gradually learning about deepening out love for each other.

5.  A year of family

Bonus No. 1 of being at Asha Kiran is that Victor and Sarah are our next door neighbours.

For our immediate family, this was going to be our year of separation, especially with Asha starting a 4 year college course in the US.  But actually it ended up that we have been more with the children than for the past 4 years!

After spending her 2 month long winter holidays with us in February 2019, Asha finished high school in March - and was then with us till end of August.  Our parting was when Sheba and I came back to India while she stayed on to dive into her first year at Taylor.

And then everything changed last month.

With COVID-19 making its way through the world, the government of India shut down all the schools in the second part of March this year.  We suddenly found out that Enoch's boarding school in Mussoorie was closed - and since we did not know how long transportation would last, we flew him over to Visakapatnam the next day and I took the 5 hour jeep drive to pick him up.

A few days later, we were praying about Asha.  Her university had announced that after spring break all classes would be on-line for the next 2 weeks at least.  As we tried to think what to do, we spent time praying and asked our loved ones to do the same.  Oma called us and said she sensed God was telling us to be together during this COVID-19 time, no matter what happens.  Sheba came across a beautiful promise in Jeremiah 32 that He would bring his people back from distant lands.

As we were about to book a ticket for her, the Indian government announced that it was shutting its airspace to all international flights.  And that two in 3 days.  We tried and tried to get a ticket for Asha and her friend Joanna, but every time the travel agent booked, the tickets were not confirmed.

The night before the deadline, I told Sheba that it looks like the Lord wants Asha to stay there for some time.  Amazingly, the next morning our dear Reneta was able to find 2 tickets on what was the last direct flight from the US East Coast to Mumbai.  

We had to wake Asha up (it was 11.30 PM) and tell her to pack because she was being taken to the airport at 7 AM.   She did so and we found out later in the day that the University went into a lock-down just a few hours after Asha and Joanna had left.  

More adventures were in store as it took long what seemed forever (only 4 hours) for Asha to come out at Mumbai airport, plus the flight we had booked from Mumbai to Vizag was cancelled and it was the first day when all of India ground to a halt when I did the jeep drive to pick up Asha.  By God's grace she made it and we are now back together as a 4-some, with our young adults doing distance learning with Wynberg Allen and Taylor.

We are so very, very, very glad that we are all together at this time.

6.  A year of world-change

Who would have thought that all flights between US and Europe and India are cancelled indefinitely?  Who would have thought that Donald Trump would speak about possible deaths in the US being between 100,000 and 200,000?  Who would ever imagine the government of India imposing a 21 day lock-down on the whole country.

Needless to say, all has changed for us at this point.  

We as a hospital expect a surge of cases and have set up an isolation ward especially for this which is already functioning (though so far we have had only a handful of suspect cases there)

Our community engagement teams are building up a COVID-19 surviellance and village damage mitigation strategy.  We were able to conduct a 'pulse outreach' programme where our people covered 157 village hamlets in just 3 days before the lock-down started.   Now we want to identify, isolate and treat patients in their own villages, with only the most sick being referred to Asha Kiran Hospital or other government set ups.

At the same time, we also are trying to understand the food security issues which the drastic change in things may bring about.  Poor and landless people who are daily wage earners through hiring themselves out for money are especially vulnerable.  Please pray for us as we try to understand the realities of the situations in our coverage area.  We face the challenge of moving around during a lock-down time, but are very grateful that we were able to get transit passes for many of our staff.

This is a disease that started just 3 months ago and has turned the world upside down. 

We are very far from the centres of power and influence and power - but have seen that the strongest countries in the world are humbled by this virus. 

And so we wait and prepare the best we can - and seeking to obey Christ's constant command for us not to fear.  Because whatever happens, we are in His loving arms.  True love drives out fear.

7.  A year of personal change.... and need for more

I have shrunk a bit this year .... around my mid-riff since I started to jog in the mornings to get ready for our Asha Kiran 10 K run.   We had to postpone the run to Oct. 24 but I got bitten by the jogging bug.  It is such a joy to jog in the early morning darkness and see the sky change colours and the sun arise.  To push yourself just a little bit more each time.  To listen to amazing praise music on my mobile.  To drink deep of the cool air and be grateful, thanking God for giving me another day.

I saw the milky way this morning.  In the dark sky on my birthday at just before 5 AM, these wispy tendrils of millions of stars, so very far away.  What is man, that you are mindful of him?

I realise that for all the steps forward that God helped me to take this year, there is still so much more for me to go.  A number of family relationships need to be deeply mended.  My old adversary of anger shows up occasionally.  I have to learn new aspects of parenting as our children grow into young adults.  Prayer is an area where I must dig down deeper.  Knowing how to prioritise.  Spending enough time in doing things that charge me - as well as serving with all my heart.  Being the husband that Sheba needs.

The list goes on.  So much to yet to grow.  But also so thankful for what has happened too.

This last year has been amazing.  God-willing this next year will be too.

Thanks for coming along on the journey!